Saturday, June 28, 2014

In short: Highway to Hell (1991)

Underage couple Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kristy Swanson) elope, planning to get married in Vegas. Alas, they take the wrong side-road and accidentally end up right next to the highway to hell. A charming hellcop (C.J. Graham) makes off with Rachel, because he’s always on the look-out for beautiful female virgins for his boss, you know who.

After some helpful exposition and an equipment endowment by road-side gas station owner Sam (Richard Farnsworth), who made one of the least effective attempts at warning anybody off in any horror movie ever before, Charlie’s off to hell to save his fiancée, only accompanied by his trusty dog Mr Ben (Rags).

Hell, it turns out, looks a lot like the Arizona desert by eternal day, and is full of slightly surreal interpretations of Americana, like the roadside diner where cops and assorted hangers-on never quite get their beloved donuts and coffee. It’s this curious and imaginative version of hell that makes Ate de Jong’s horror action comedy the minor delight that it is, with hardly five minutes going by where not at least one or two funny or (sometimes) mildly creepy versions of elements of “typical America” turn up to produce a smile or two. (There’s also a short and sweet digression into Greek myth with a seriously wonderful Charon, but I digress – as always).

And if a given idea doesn’t tickle one’s fancy, the film’s so nicely paced the offending bit won’t stay on screen for too long, because there are, after all, a couple hundred other visual gags and neat ideas de Jong just has to show you. Highway to Hell is very enthusiastic about everything it has to offer too, always giving the impression of a film doing its utmost to have something fun to offer in every scene. While this approach doesn’t exactly lend the film much depth or logic, the former isn’t what it aims for (it prefers broadness), and the latter not necessarily something befitting a film taking place in hell.

At the same time, I wouldn’t say Highway to Hell is a stupid movie as such. Many of its visual gags are actually pretty clever, and it would be foolish to doubt the intelligence of a film with a Devil this ambiguous, nor of one who may use the traditional “save the princess” structure but still gives his female lead much more space to demonstrate agency and competence than you’d expect in this sort of set up. First and foremost, though, Highway to Hell is and obviously wants to be a fun, pacy, little film. It is that, too.

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